As mentioned on my about page, one of the reasons how this blog was started is because of FOFO. FOFO is a social group on Flickr where we share the same passion towards food and photography will go out and eat... with cameras of course. Unfortunately, the group has been shamefully neglected for over 8 months simply because everyone were busy with their own agendas in life. Partly is my fault for not looking after the group since moving up to the Coast. Enough is enough and it's been far too long, I've resurrected the group with a great turn out of ten people to our latest FOFO feasting at The Russian Coachmen Restaurant (Or simply "The Coachmen" in short). Oh, I almost forgot how much fun it was to hang out with the FOFO(-nians?)!
The Coachmen came up during a recent conversation between me and the Beardman while we were at Est. for the Merivale Winter Feast. We both agreed instantly that we have to have our next FOFO outing at this restaurant that not many people know about. The restaurant is located at the quiet end of Bourke Street in Surry Hills not far from Bourke Street Bakery. From the outside, you would hardly notice that this sandstone heritage building constructed by convicts more than 150 years ago is actually a restaurant, especially when it is all secretly hiding behind tall sandstone walls, the red awning and the wrought iron gate. It is all hush hush and no one knows what is going on inside, I guess there is only one way to find out. No turning back now... We step through the iron gate and immediately greeted by a half naked Venus de Milo statue before we find ourselves in the grand front bar area. The kitsch over-the-top decor at the front bar had me in awe. The bar counter is supported by mythical half eagle half lion gargoyles, while an extensive range of alcohol are neatly stacked and mirrored on the bar shelves, guarded by two giant romanesque statues on each side. Beardman, Aussie Ana, Mr and Mrs Robot are already here, sitting on the red velvet lounge awaiting for our arrival. Mirvettium, Mr and Mrs Pig Flyin' also arrived not long after before we proceed into the dining room.
The front bar is just the tip of the iceberg before we found ourselves in one of the most impressive private dining room I've ever seen. The sandstone dining room is almost filled up with a massive oval shaped glass top table in the center, with fanned napkins, shimmering glassware and faux flowers candlelight holder as the finishing touch. The dining area on the other side across the corridor has a more intimate ambience for couples, a lot dimmer with flickering candlelight setting the mood.
We start the night off with some vodka tastings, a last minute offer swapped over from the complimentary bottle of wine by booking online. Make sure you ask the lovely waitress dressed in folk costume nicely. Two different kind of vodkas are on offer for tasting - the clear Polar Bear Russian Vodka is straight bottoms up with throat burning sensation. A big sigh, shaking one's head violently until lips fluttering uncontrollably follows by a loud groan afterwards helps. The latter house made plum vodka is smoother and more palatable with a sweet undertone.
More mouths mean more food porn coverage. Among the ten of us, we all tagged team and able to cover most of the dishes on the menu. You can't have vodka without some potatoes, this is a Russian restaurant after all? The vareniki, is a traditional Ukrainian-style dumplings filled with mashed potato, then poached in boiling water. The dumplings are moreish like the potato gnocchi, it is served with caramelised fried onion rings and sour cream in a tomato rosette.
If you prefer meat in your dumplings, then the Pelmeni will be the right choice. This Pelmeni is very much similar to the Vareniki but filled with minced meat instead of mashed potato. It is poached in boiling water then served in clear stock with a dollop of sour cream. The outlook is rather pedestrian but definitely shouting out comfort food for a freezing cold winter night in Russia I could imagine.
Mrs Robot feels like a soup and ordered the hot Borscht. The Russian borscht is more like a warm tomato soup whereas beetroot acts as the secondary ingredient along with cabbage, cubes of potato and carrot, all simmered in a meat broth. Sour cream adds creaminess to the soup.
I simply can't dismiss the word "caviar" on the menu even though I know it is just some cheap red salmon egg roes. Helen probably thinking the same thing as we both go for the Russian style crepes. Two folded crepes are impressively thin, served warm with plump popping salty salmon egg roes, while the sour cream balance it nicely.
The most popular choice at our table has to be the herring in a fur coat simply because of its peculiar name. I was initially the fourth person trying to order it but unfortunately just missed out as my fellow companion already ordered the last three serves. Mrs Pig Flyin' kind enough to let me had a taste of hers. The color of the dish is just as peculiar as its name in a vibrant pink hue. The herring fillet is buried deep in the dish of potato and beetroot salad, topped with egg zest which I thought is cheese at first. The earthy beetroot makes the herring like swimming in a puddle of pink mud, the saltiness of the fish is even more prominent.
The Pom orders the Coachmen pancakes, a house specialty. The savoury crepes are filled with tender succulent chicken pieces and served warm with creamy mushroom sauce. Surprisingly this is one of my favourite entree among them all.
The service is prompt and attentive, we didn't have to wait long for the mains to arrive. Mirvettium she is the only one who orders the grilled pork medallion. The marinated lean pork medallion is flame grilled to a crispy golden brown, served with mashed potato, creamy spinach and topped with sweet caramelised fried onion. I found the pork is tad too salty from the marinade, but the sour cream sauce binds with the creamy mashed potato beautifully and makes a perfect match with the pork.
The pom's beef stroganoff is not as saucy as what we'd have expected. Despite its poor presentation, the strips of steaks are actually very tender heavily coated in a mushroom sour cream mustard sauce. It is served with jasmine rice and pickled gherkins on the side.
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Mr Robot orders veal goulash, while Mrs Robot goes for the Monastic fish. There are tender veal chunks in the ceramic pot, sauteed with sour tomatoes, carrots and selected herbs in cream. Served with caramelised onion toast on top with shredded cheese.
The monastic fish had us intrigued. It is described as an authentic 18th century recipe served to the monks in monastry whom were mostly vegetarians. The Dory fish fillet is baked in a ceramic pot along with potato, mushrooms and cheese au gratin. The fish was a little salty I've been told, and vey rich smothered in melted cheese in the pot.
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Me and Mr Pig Flyin' both opt for the Georgian style Shashlik. The dish steals the whole show of the evening when it comes out with big chunks of marinated lamb fillet grilled on a giant skewer across the whole plate. The baked chat potato is soft with a crispy skin, while fresh salad balance out the meaty dish. The first two chunks of lamb on both edges are a little well done, but the rest are beautifully cooked with pink juicy tenderness. The homemade spicy tomato sauce gives the lamb a subtle heat punch.
Helen orders the cabbage rolls which I always thought is a Lebanese or Greek food. Two big white cabbage leaves are filled with ground beef and rice, simmered slowly until cooked in vine-ripened tomato sauce served with more tangy sour cream.
Most of us are already quite full with all the rich and creamy dishes, thus only a few of us putting hands up for dessert. The dessert menu is probably the least exciting as I was expecting something more Russian focused. The sweet crepe filled with hot raspberry soaked in sugar then served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and dark chocolate sauce drizzled all over.
The mango paradise mousse cake is pretty to look at, but I found it nothing like a mousse cake. The bouncy texture makes it more like mango jelly with the heavy use of gelatine instead of a soft airy texture a mousse cake should have. It is then simply sandwiched between two layers of sponge cake which is rather dry.
I ordered the sour cherry strudel which is probably the most satisfying among them all. Despite a stodgy pastry, the sour cherry filling inside is aplenty, it has a very soury tang, perfectly balanced out with the scoop of vanilla ice cream. A nice dessert to finish up the meal this evening.
We ate, we chatted, we laughed and we definitely enjoyed each other's company. I can see there will be a lot more FOFO outings to come in 2010.
The Coachmen Russian Restaurant and Function Centre 763 Bourke Street, Surry Hills, Sydney
Tel: +61 (02) 9319 7705
Open for dinner Tuesday to Sunday